24 May 2012
Choice without information is dangerous
Kam Gill discusses the need for greater availability of data on policing in the lead up to the Police and Crime Commissioners elections in November.
In the lead up to the election of the first police and crime commissioners, the availability and awareness of data on policing is a pressing issue. The information required for an interested citizen to make a relatively informed choice in a general election is published daily. It is broadcast regularly on almost all radio channels – some channels are almost entirely devoted to broadcasting and discussing it – and features nightly at least 5 of the main television channels. While there is, rightly no requirement for a citizen to read a newspaper to vote, should they decide to become more informed about politics they do not have to look very hard. However, this is not the case when it comes to information about policing.
The elections represent the most significant change to our policing system in 150 years and will (hopefully) provide people with more say over how policing takes place locally. To make an informed decision over who should be a Police and Crime Commissioner, people will need information on how policing operates in their area – crime rates, arrest rates, budget implications of use of various powers, annual budget for broader crime prevention (youth clubs, drug & alcohol treatment, domestic violence refuges) ethnic breakdown of the local force and usage of exceptional powers such as Section 60 to name just a few. Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System are released once a year. The disprortionality figures mainly in relation to stop and search then raise a flurry of debate in the press and the topic largely disappears until resurrected by a race scandal – admittedly a sadly regular occurrence over the past 12 months. On a local level the curious electorate will have to navigate the patchy provision of data on local police service websites. The accessibility and transparency of police websites vary greatly across the country. There is the option of a Freedom of Information request to an individual force if one wants information not readily available. However, this is a time-consuming, technical process with no guarantee of success. It is not a viable option for the casual voter who just wants a few more hard stats on which to basis their decision.
Without a significant effort to inform the public about the policing data available, and to facilitate access to that information; the habits of inquiry required for an informed electorate will not be embedded by the time elections roll round in November. StopWatch will be endeavouring to provide as much information as possible. We will have factsheets on stop and search, and we will try to provide basic policing stats for different regions (Watch this space). However we can only do so much, the emphasis must lie on the bodies that generate and collect this data. People will be making decisions that will have potentially profound impacts on how they, their friends, family and the rest of the community experience policing. It is vital they do so with all the facts at their fingertips.